How London Underground Became The Coolest Brand In The World

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 7 months ago

Last Updated 01 December 2023

How London Underground Became The Coolest Brand In The World
People perusing transport themed merch in a shop in the 80s
The London Transport shop at Griffith House, London circa 1975, © TfL London Transport Museum collection.

Tube maps, signage, the seating on trains — it's all pretty utilitarian stuff. And yet, in the world of the London Underground, they have become infinitely more than the sum of their parts. Hipsters flaunt trainers brandished with roundels, while sipping Covent Garden station-themed whisky on their moquette sofas. While 'London Underground' should sound about as thrilling as 'Thanet Electricity' or 'Northumberland Taxis', it is in fact one of the most coveted brands in the country — a name that the ilk of Nike and Kurt Geiger want to be seen swanning about town with. So how did it happen?

The seeds are sown

A glowing roundel with 'Frank Pick' written on it
Frank Pick arguably kickstarted London Underground as a marketable brand. Photo: Thierry Bal/TfL

Though the first stretch of what would come to be known as the London Underground opened in 1863, it wasn't until almost half a century later that it began to mould itself into a truly marketable brand. In 1908, the various separate underground railway companies running the line agreed on using the word 'UndergrounD', and the first roundels — using a solid red enamel disc and horizontal blue bar — were installed on station platforms. The seeds were sown for what would become one of the world's most recognisable brands, and the man behind this move was new kid on the block Frank Pick — an art-obsessed publicity officer.

Emma Strain, Customer Director at Transport for London (aka TfL, the body responsible for London Underground) tells Londonist: "Frank Pick’s longstanding influence on the quality of our iconic design is indisputable, but he is one of a great number of award-winning architects, designers and artist — many of whom are unsung — who have all had a role to play in the esteem in which the brand is highly held in today."

A vintage tube carriage with roundel moquette
The coming together of moquette and roundels. Image: TfL

Indeed, Pick pulled a galaxy of designers and architecture into his orbit, including Edward Johnston (creator of the Johnston font, still used across branding today), Harry Beck with his redoubtable 'circuit board' style tube map of 1933, and Charles Holden, who conceived many of the seminal tube stations of the 1920s and 30s. Pick also ushered in a conveyor belt of talented artists to create posters, which not only informed/warned passengers about travel related issues, but inspired them to do things, go places — see Charles Paine's iconic 'For the Zoo' poster, or the Metro-land campaigns of the 1920s, urging Londoners to leave the city, for the fresh air and crisp lawns of the suburbs. Taking the tube or bus in London was no longer a mere necessity for Londoners; by public transport you could go on a memorable day out — or even to a brand new home, and way of life.

Buying into the brand

A mug with a tube map on it
This Underground mug is one of the London Transport Museum shop's big sellers. Image: TfL

Over the coming decades, London Underground continued to cement its branding, using everything from the deco moquette patterns of Enid Marx and Marion Dorn (there was even a coming together of the roundel and moquette, with the 'Roundel' or 'Bullseye' design attributed to a young designer known only as 'Miss Jarvis'), to the uniform painting of rolling stock red, white and blue (although surprisingly, some unpainted tube carriages were still on the network as late as 2008). By the 1930s, other countries — including France and Spain — were 'borrowing' the roundel and its colours, and by the 1950s, the likes of Cuba and India were too. This was, perhaps, the first hint that the brand could have international appeal. Meanwhile, The look and feel of 'London Underground' was branded into the psyche of Londoners, and visitors to the capital. By the 1970s and 80s, people began to buy into this brand in a quite literal sense.

A toy taxi and red bus set
Another popular item in the shop is this taxi and bus set. Image: TfL

A photo from the mid 1970s (see image at top of article) shows that by this time, an appetite for owning London Underground merchandise had surfaced — one which wasn't merely the preserve of the transport nerd. In this shot of the first London Transport shop (based in Griffith House near Edgware Road), we see a range of folk (all with overly-healthy heads of hair) showing an interest in the brand: a man flicks through vintage posters, a young boy plays with a toy bus, a girl purchases a poster of a tube map. In 1980, the London Transport Museum opened in Covent Garden with a designated shop, and seven years later this really took off, thanks to the first Art on the Underground Series, a hugely successful campaign of new artworks placed across the network, including David Booth's iconic 'tubes of paint' work. "The Museum shop benefited enormously," a London Transport Museum spokesperson tells us. Indeed, posters have been a mainstay of the shop ever since — and sales will only balloon now the museum has opened a dedicated poster gallery.

A tube map as created from squeeze tubes of paint
David Booth's iconic 'tubes of paint' work from 1987 sold lots of posters... and continues to do so. Image: TfL

Merchandise was still a moderate side hustle at this time, but in 2007, a revamped London Transport Museum flung back open its doors with a more powerful sales strategy. This was the year following Twitter's launch (and Instagram would launch in 2010), and TfL (which had been created in 2000) was now able to put its finger more firmly on what the people wanted. One of these things was moquette; a new fascination with the patterned material used on tube, train and bus seats was taking hold of the city — the flames of moquette mania fanned by everyone from Tim Dunn to Andrew Martin (and dare we say certain websites about London, too...). Moquette cushions, bags — even furniture — was sold in the shops.

When we asked our own readers about the TfL merch they own, a number claimed to be proud owners of moquette socks, scarfs, baseball caps, blankets and Oysters holders. There was a sense now that people wanted to take a chunk of the London transport network home with them. Even railwayana — disused tube buttons, 'way out signs', platform lights — were up for sale. (A few years ago I bought an old Jubilee tube button for £10; they're now being sold in the shop for £70, which goes to show the rise in popularity.) Everything from buses, to the Overground, to trams were fair game by now, extending the brand beyond 'Underground'. When the pandemic came in 2020, and the city's network effectively shuttered, the online shop did a roaring trade in face masks. It proved a form of nostalgia for the tube and bus journeys that Londoners may have thought they loathed, but were now — dare they say it — missing.

A load of trippy tube merch
The London Underground branding has been a big source of inspiration for many brands and deisgners. Image: Nathaniel Furman

Meanwhile, imitators were on the rise. In shops and market stalls around Oxford Street and Camden, t-shirts and bags bore tube maps and 'Mind the Gap' slogans  — not all of them above board. Elsewhere, none-too-subtle roundels appeared on everywhere from American Windshield replacement companies to pie and mash shops in North Norfolk. Imitation, of course, is the sincerest form of flattery (even if TfL's legal department doesn't necessarily see it that way), but it also adds weight to the brand's semi-legendary status. Other creatives have more savvily taken inspiration from the London Underground branding, while swerving directly lifting motifs: look at Nathaniel Furman, with his avant garde twist on the genre.

In 2018-19 (a good year to look at, because it's pre-pandemic slump), TfL made a not insignificant £2.9m from retail. Consider that many of these sales would've come from smaller ticket items such as the bestselling Underground Map Mug and London Bus and Taxi set, and you get an idea of the number of people willing to dip hands in their pocket, to buy into the brand one way or another.

Yet there was money to be made elsewhere too — and around 10 years ago, TfL began to tap this vein very hard indeed.

Designer collaborations

A crushed velvet handbag with a roundel shapes motif on the side
Not all Underground branded items will be to everyone's taste. Image: TfL

The London Underground network has always dabbled in advertising; in 1896, the station indicators on District lines trains were sponsored by Bovril. Some commuters might even admit to you that they love reading those whimsically long-winded Jack Daniels ads while waiting for their ride home.

But as well as having tube stations with the kind of footfall advertisers wet themselves over, TfL realised it had something else, too: a brand that advertisers want to be a part of. "With such high brand recognition, major brands want to work with us," says Emma Strain. In 2013, TfL established a Commercial Development division to help increase non-fare revenue from across TfL. This included looking into how the company could better utilise its brand, increasing advertising and sponsorship revenue.

A square-shaped roundel is erected at Oxford Circus tube station
PlayStation had one of the most successful alternative roundel promotions. Image: Sony

Suddenly, bigger, more exciting things started happening. Entire corridors of tube stations became walk-through billboards. Novelty roundels appeared: Buxton Water, Star Trek, PlayStation ones (which you can still see through the windows of Sony's Great Marlborough Street offices). Visa, meanwhile, pounced on the soaring national mood during the 2018 Football World Cup, to rush out a 'Gareth Southgate' roundel at Southgate tube station (bagging TfL a cool £80k in the process). IKEA sponsored stops on the official tube map, proving that even real estate on Harry Beck's hallowed design was up for grabs, if you had £800k to splash.

But while the best of these show-stopping gimmicks intrigued — and even delighted — Londoners (and, naturally had them posting about it all over social media), other TfL collaborations created a new type of consumer, those who wanted to flaunt 'London Underground' themselves; to become brand ambassadors, and pay for the privilege.

An empty tube tunnel, with a chink of light at the end of it
Hidden London tours see people pay good money to visit abandoned tunnels and platforms. Image: TfL

Among TfL's recent high-profile partnerships are Adidas, Arsenal, Prada Linea Rossa, Kurt Geiger, Malet and Bimber Distillery — not to mention some very on-fleek moquette Nike trainers (currently selling online for circa £400). This is, in essence, the London Transport Museum shop on steroids. Some collaborations verge on the uncanny, and possibly even the silly; who, for instance, is genuinely in the market for a Kurt Geiger handbag that looks like it's been made from the pelt of former McDonald's mascot, Grimace? But perhaps that's beside the point; the bottom line is that some of the world's biggest brands — swish designer ones too — want in on the London Underground action. And that's not bad going, seeing as its primary job is to make sure you get to your meetings on time.

But it's not all about consumer products; in 2015, TfL found another avenue of interest/profit to be explored, running its first Hidden London tours. By opening up abandoned tube stations, tram lines, deep level shelters and such, it offered people a memorable experience, while turning a nifty profit. These Hidden London tours have achieved something else extraordinary too: going to a tube station was always a necessary evil — now it's become a coveted pastime, which many punters will happily pay top dollar for.

A pair of moquette trainers
London Underground trainers are a recurring theme. Image: TfL

In a world where we're saturated with advertising, and in which the cost of living continues to creep up, it's tempting to knock TfL for what can appear at times to be an attitude bordering on the mercenary (especially when you look at some of the premium prices for some Hidden London tours and heritage tube train rides). But really, can you blame a chronically underfunded body for seeking out every possible avenue of revenue there is? Also, similar to its earnings from merchandise, TfL makes around £2.5 million in revenue from its brand licensing activities each year — a lot less than you might think, and a drop in the ocean compared to that of some of the brands it's worked with (in 2022, PlayStation recorded revenues of over £21 billion).

Running out of track?

A guitar with a tube map on it
Can you have too many Underground products? Image: TfL

Will people gradually grown nauseous of London Underground branding? Is it possible to go a pair of Routemaster moquette PJs too far? The answer is: probably not. London's transport network enjoys a continually fresh audience, whether that's people moving to the city, or wide-eyed neophytes visiting for the first time. This also highlights another strength of the brand; says Emma Strain: "Our international following is definitely growing. One thing about the TfL brand is that it has a very strong and large following across the world (and is certainly recognised by many people overseas as intrinsically London)."

While some people might simple want to take a roundel-shaped keyring back home with them, the international market is more than that alone; in the summer of 2023, a range of clothing called the London Underground Studio was launched with fashion brand Handsome in South Korea. While other countries unashamedly plagiarised from the London Underground style guide back in the 1930s, now the consensus is that you can't beat the real thing. And while other metro systems might enjoy a certain cultural cache (the Metropolitan signs of the Paris Metro; NYC's hypnotic subway map), none hold a candle to London's. After all, the roundel and Mind the Gap ARE London. And London, for all its foibles, has always been a honeypot for the rest of the world.

A Christmassy bus themed jumper and hat
The London Transport Museum gift shop is never short on new ideas on how to sell the brand. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

The brand's future-proofing goes beyond this: London's network is constantly expanding (2022, of course, saw the launch of the Elizabeth line, along with a slew of Elizabeth line merch), and while not every year will see such a blockbuster shake-up, there is usually something headline worthy (Northern line extensions, Superloop buses) in the works. And aside from its rich heritage and shrewd design — not to mention a kind of consistent homeyness — TfL has something else up its sleeve. It is, says Emma Strain, synonymous with customer focus, public service, and above all, trusted: "For more than 160 years," she says, "we've built a relationship of deep trust with Londoners and visitors. Trust is something that as we know is incredibly important to people and valuable for brands, and it's something that as a business we pride ourselves in maintaining with our customers."